Video: 'Bait cars': How they work

updated 5/9/2006 2:22:37 PM ET 2006-05-09T18:22:37

If you're a car thief, the West -- particularly California -- is still the place to be.

In its latest rankings of auto theft hot spots, released Tuesday, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says the top 10 all are in the West and six are in California.

Once again, the Modesto-Stanislaus County metropolitan area in California's Central Valley led the way, recording the highest auto theft rate for the 2005 calendar year.

The area, about 60 miles east of the San Francisco Bay Area, also had the nation's highest auto theft rate in 2004 and 2003.

Stanislaus County authorities say they are making progress in curbing thefts, though, with targeted enforcement, higher bail and longer jail sentences, and are looking to the day when Modesto won't be No. 1 any more.

“Certainly no one wants to be the highest auto theft rate in the U.S.,” said Lt. Jeff Morris of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force. “But what it (the No. 1 ranking) did do is highlight the problem ... It's bigger than Modesto, it's bigger than Stanislaus County, it's the whole Central Valley."

After the Stanislaus task force ran a "bait car" operation last fall, auto thefts in January and February of this year were down about 30 percent from the same period in 2005, Morris said. “We’re very excited about that.”

In the insurance bureau's new rankings, Modesto was followed by Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev.; Stockton, Calif.; Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Visalia-Porterville, Calif.

Rounding out the top 10 were Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.; Sacramento/Arden-Arcade/Roseville, Calif.; San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif.; Fresno, Calif.; and Yakima, Wash.

To create its list, the insurance bureau compares vehicle thefts with latest Census Bureau population estimates to determine theft rates, then ranks each of the nation's 360 metropolitan statistical areas. The nonprofit trade group targets auto theft and insurance fraud.

Why are California’s numbers so high?

“In California, there are more cars, more people," said Frank Scafidi, a spokeman for the insurance bureau. "If you’re going to steal cars, what better place?"

Many investigators say methamphetamine abuse is an important factor.

“The number one thing that drives it in our county is narcotics abuse – methamphetamines,” said Sgt. Paul Kennedy of the Sacramento County Auto Theft Suppression Task Force. “I’ve seen good people turn into criminals because of it.”

Sometimes, in "bait car" video of thieves caught in the act, as soon as they get in the car, they check the console, glove box and elsewhere looking for money, checkbooks, CDs or cell phones -- anything that a drug user could use to get money to buy more drugs.

In Seattle –- No. 6 in the latest rankings -- police and prosecutors are trying to get a hold of the problem by targeting repeat offenders with a rotating top 10 list of car thieves. They track people who have been incarcerated and monitor when thieves are due to be released.

“They’re the folks we build a rapport with and we continually arrest,” said Seattle Police Lt. Mark Mount.

Mount also noted a connection between drug use and the most prolific thieves on their list. “Their drug of choice tends to be methamphetamine.”

He recalled one methamphetamine user they arrested who would break into multiple cars at night, occasionally taking the car too.

Asked why, the man told investigators, “ ‘Cause I can. I don’t sleep. It’s something to do.”

Despite the stubborn nature of the car theft problem in many parts of the West, nationwide auto theft is down 2.1 percent for January to June 2005, according to preliminary FBI data.

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